As you are all aware, Matt Carpenter has been on an epic hot streak, one that has helped propel the Cardinals into the Wild Card chase and has placed him firmly in the hunt for NL MVP. By fWAR he’s at 4.9, tied for 2nd in the NL with Nolan Arenado among position players (but behind pitchers Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Aaron Nola) and by rWAR he’s at 5.2, ahead of Arenado but slightly behind the others and Lorenzo Cain and Kyle Freeland. Pitchers tend not to get the same MVP consideration as position players do so, while the field is wide open at this point, Carp seems to have as good a chance as anyone to win it.
Despite many Cards’ fans’ complaints, Carp’s been a very good player for several years but it’s been since 2015 since he’s had a year this good and, in fact, he’s never finished a season with a higher OPS, wOBA, or wRC+ than he has right now. Simply put, if he finishes the season with the same rate stats that he has right now, this will be his best offensive season. What’s most surprising about Carp’s performance this year is that the first 6 or 7 weeks of the season, his numbers were abysmal. His peripheral numbers were strong but after the 39th game of the season – 25% of the way through the season – Carp had a slash line of .140/.286/.272. His OPS was just .558. His slugging percentage for the season is now higher than that (.581).
Carpenter has been on a 3-month hot streak that began on May 16 and it has turned him from one of the worst hitters in the NL to the best. Over the 3-month period that ran from May 16 to August 15, Carpenter’s slash line was .326/.430/.707. He hit 30 homers over that 3-month period in which his OPS was an astounding 1.137. His wOBA was .464 and his wRC+ was 197 which means that his offensive performance was 97% better than the average major league hitter. He was basically twice as good as the average major leaguer for a period long enough to consist of half a major league season.
It struck me that this hot streak had to be one of the greatest streaks in Cardinal history and so I wanted to find out exactly how good this streak was. This was easier said than done because nowhere (at least nowhere I’ve been able to find and nowhere the others I asked for help from could find) is there comprehensive data on a player’s offensive performance over a randomly selected 3-month consecutive time frame. One can find a player’s performance over a month at a time or for seasons, obviously, and using Fangraphs one can find a player’s performance over a predetermined time period if you know the beginning and ending dates (like May 16 – August 15, for example) but nowhere is there a way to sort offensive performance by a 3-month consecutive time period. So I’m having to sort of piece this together as I’ve found it.
Carp’s offensive performance peaked in July, as he had a 1.222 OPS, a .490 wOBA, and a wRC+ of 214. That’s not quite Barry Bonds at his offensive peak but, just for frame of reference, Mike Trout has never had an offensive season that good. (caveat…I just compared 1 MONTH of Carp to a season of Trout so the comparison is a little fishy. Thanks, I’ll be here all week.) Trout’s May of this year, his best offensive season, was about as good as Carp’s July. The point is this is truly elite offensive performance. But obviously, Carp’s been no 1-hit wonder. In June he had a 1.040 OPS, a .434 wOBA, and a wRC+ of 177 and so far he’s at 1.027, .409, and 160 in just 78 PA’s. Even in May when he was awful for half a month, he finished the month with a .961 OPS, a .404 wOBA, and a 156 wRC+. He’s just been phenomenal since mid-May. So how does this compare with other Cardinals throughout history? How does this streak compare to Pujols, McGwire, Musial, and Hornsby?
This was more difficult so I started with Baseball-Reference’s fantastic play index. It’s a gold mine of information. As it turns out, Carp’s July where his OPS was 123% better than the average player’s was only the 38th best offensive month in Cardinals’ history. I expected it to be better than that. There have just been a lot of great months in Cardinals’ history. The best was Rogers Hornsby in 1924. In what was basically the dead-ball era, Hornsby’s OPS in August was 1.466. He had more homers than strikeouts and batted a robust .509 in 127 plate appearances. Pretty good. After that, you see names like Chick Hafey, McGwire, PUjols, Musial, Johnny Mize. Enos Slaughter is on the list and so is Ray Lankford. Jim Edmonds is on there twice ahead of Carp’s July. Carp’s June, his 2nd best month, sits at #186 on the list behind Darrell Porter’s Sept/Oct of 1983 and someone named Ed Konetchy. Pujols is on that list an amazing 23 times – nearly 4 full seasons – ahead of Carp’s 2nd best month in this amazing streak.
This isn’t meant to downgrade how great Carp has been this year. It just illustrates how much greatness there is in Cardinals’ history. I was amazed. Still, these are individual months, not consecutive months and even the 23 times Pujols has been among the top 185 months in Cardinals’ history don’t show that he’s been able to put together a 3-month streak that matches Carpenter’s. So I decided I needed to dig deeper.
Interestingly, Carp had a streak nearly this good in 2016. He was phenomenal in May and June and into July and then ended up going on the DL with a strained right oblique that curtailed that terrific streak. For the 3 month period between April 5 and July 4 he had a 1.013 OPS, a .423 wOBA, and a 169 wRC+. It was a fantastic 3 months but still not nearly as good as the streak he’s on right now.
My methodology for comparing Carp’s streak to the others is to use Baseball-Reference’s monthly sOPS+ splits. Fangraphs doesn’t have splits nor does it have wRC+ going back into the 20’s and 30’s and OPS isn’t a good enough comparison since it doesn’t compare a player’s offensive performance to that of his peers or the era in which he played. Over the 3-months of Carp’s streak, his sOPS+ is approximately 192 which means that he’s been roughly 92% better than the average offensive player over that period.
There are players who’ve had longer streaks than Carp’s (so far) but didn’t quite have Carp’s peak so, to my mind, they didn’t qualify. Carp’s streak may continue throughout the last 40 or so games and we’re looking for spectacular performances so I was really most concerned with a player’s peak rather than how long a very good performance lasted. For example, Joe Torre was tremendous in 1971 as his streak basically lasted the entire season, though it peaked from July to September so while his peak was close to Carp’s (average sOPS+ of 191), it fell just short. Torre, by the way, was the NL MVP in 1971.
Jack Clark, too, had a streak in 1987 that fell just short of Carp’s this year. 1987 was a big offensive year and Clark was nearly a 6-win player that year despite pretty poor defense mostly playing 1B. Imagine Jose Martinez at 1B every day. Clark had a 3-month streak from roughly May through July where he put up a 1.118 OPS playing in a huge ballpark like Busch II every day.
Fan favorite Jim Edmonds had a tremendous 2-month streak to end the 2001 season (OPS around 1.200) but his July was below average. Even if you compare Carp’s 2 best months to Edmonds’ from that year Carp comes out on top.
No, every Cardinal who’s had a better 3-month streak than Matt Carpenter is either in the MLB Hall of Fame, will be (Pujols), or is Mark McGwire. And so, without further ado, here are the only streaks in Cardinal history better than the one that Carpenter is on right now.
5. Joe Medwick – May – August, 1937
Medwick’s sOPS+’s for this 4-month period were 222, 213, 178, and 179, respectively. This was easily the Hall-of-Famer’s best season in the big leagues.
4. Mark McGwire – April – June, 1998; July – September, 1998; July – September, 1999.
McGwire had 3 3-month streaks in 2 seasons that were among the best the sport has ever seen. McGwire’s story is well-known to even casual baseball fans so I don’t want to dig too much into it but many of us remember how magical those 2 seasons were and what it was like to go to the park and tune in to SportsCenter at night to see if McGwire homered and how many he hit. He dominated the sport for those 2 seasons.
From April to June, 1998, McGwire had sOPS+’s of 224, 267, and 209, respectively. He “slumped” a little in July with “only” a 155 sOPS+ but rebounded to finish the season at 204 and 255. In Cardinals’ history, only Rogers Hornsby and McGwire had a season with 2 months where his OPS was 150% better than the average player’s.
1999 was still spectacular for McGwire but wasn’t quite as good as 1998 was. He started out a little slower but was just phenomenal in the last half of the season, posting sOPS+’s of 220, 217, and 200 in the season’s last 3 months. (Notice that Carp’s best month of 2018 was better than all 3 of those months for McGwire in 1999 when he hit a total of 65 homers.)
3. Albert Pujols – April – June, 2003; July – September, 2004; April – June, 2008; April – June, 2009.
Pujols had 4 3-month streaks as a Cardinal that were better than Carpenter’s but actually only had 3 months where he outperformed Carpenter’s July.
In early, 2003, Pujols started out like gangbusters, posting sOPS+’s of 206, 186, and 210 for a 201 average. In 2004, the season where the Cardinals won 105 games, Pujols had fewer peaks and valleys but was incredibly consistent throughout. His best 3-month streak ended the season where he put up sOPS+’s of 193, 193, and 190, respectively. By 2008, Pujols was baseball’s best hitter and he began the season with sOPS+’s of 202, 212, and 167. In 2009, his best streak was better than in any other season as he hit 194, 206, and posted a 241 sOPS+ in June. It’s so easy to forget how phenomenal Pujols was. What Carpenter has been the last 3 months, Pujols basically was for the better part of 10 seasons.
2. Rogers Hornsby – April – June, 1917; entire season, 1922; June – August, 1924; April – mid-July, 1925.
Hornsby was easily one of the game’s best players 100 years ago as any cursory review of the statistics will show. He began the 1917 season with sOPS+’s of 203, 175, and 199 for a 192.3 average that matches the average of Carp’s 3-month streak. In 1922, his streak lasted the entire season as he posted a 212 sOPS+ for the season. In 1924, Hornsby put up sOPS+’s of 175, 252, and an unbelievable 296 from June through August. By sOPS+, Hornsby’s August of 1924 is the 17th best month in baseball history. (#1 – Barry Bonds, Sept/Oct, 2001). That 3-month streak averaged 241 and Hornsby’s sOPS+ for the season (223) is equal to the best month of Carp’s streak (July). Hornsby truly was one of the best to ever play the game. He was just about as good in 1925 as he put up a 266 sOPS+ in June, making his first 3 months of the season as good as Carp’s best month of 2018.
1. Stan Musial – July – September, 1943; June – August, 1946; entire season, 1948; July – September, 1949; May – July, 1951; July – September, 1953; April – July, 1954.
Stan Musial is one of the top few hitters in baseball history. Spending just a little time digging into his splits will tell you that so I’m not going to bore you with all the details of these months. I’ll just tell you that 6 of these 3-months streaks averaged sOPS+’s greater than 200, ranging from 207 in 1943, 1946, and 1951 to 217 in 1948. He didn’t quite have the amazing peak months of Hornsby but he was so much more consistent.
In 1948, he finished the season with an sOPS+ of 217 (Carp’s July was 223) and it was 228 at the All-Star break. Even in 1954, when he wasn’t quite as good as the other 6 years he still averaged an sOPS+ of 197 from the beginning of the season to mid-July. Musial was simply a remarkable ball player.
I hope I haven’t gotten away from the intention of this piece by talking about all the great 3-month streaks in Cardinal history. The point is to demonstrate that the only players in Cardinal history who have been better over 3 consecutive months are either in the Hall of Fame, will be, or would be were it not for the steroid issue. There have been lots of great Cardinals and lots of great Cardinal performances but only a handful have been better than what Matt Carpenter has done since May 16.
Thanks for reading. Stats come courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-reference, and especially B-R's fantastic play index.
Thanks as always to @cardinalsgifs for the great Carp pic.